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Spring 2015
Sky Basics and Spring Sky Events
by Dr. Bob Doyle, Portable Planetarium Teacher

Resources for Teachers

Spring (Apr. - Jun.) 2015 Sky Basics

On a clear night, ½ of the universe is visible from your backyard! The night sky appears dark because space is mostly empty and the universe is expanding (growing in size). The night stars are distant suns that are much, much further away than our sun, our home star. The closest heavenly body to us is our moon, which goes around the Earth about every 4 weeks. With our eyes, we can see grey patches on the moon, which are huge lava plains that hardened and cooled in moon's early history. As the moon orbits Earth, it is lit up by the sun. The moon has a day side and a night side, just like our Earth. When moon appears skinny, we are mainly seeing its night or dark side. When the moon appears full or nearly full, we are viewing most of the moon's day side. The nearest planets appear as bright, steady points of light. Mercury and Venus with their smaller orbits, always appear close to the sun, either in the eastern dawn or western dusk. The three outer planets that may be seen at any time of the night are Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

At most about 2,000 stars can be seen on a dark, moonless night These stars are close by neighbors to our sun within our vast galaxy that has many more stars than the billions of people alive on Earth.

Spring 2015 Sky Events (April, May & June)

The brightest point in the evening sky in April through June is brilliant Venus, our nearest planetary neighbor. Look in the western sky as it begins to get dark, there you will see a tiny point of light. (West is the direction of the setting sun.) As it gets darker, Venus outshines all the night stars due to its relative closeness and highly reflective clouds. During the spring months, the bright planet Jupiter is prominent in the southwestern evening sky. From late April through late May, the innermost planet Mercury can be seen low in the West to the right and below the planet Venus. The last planet to appear on spring evenings is the ringed planet Saturn, shining in Libra in the late evening sky. Saturn is closest to the Earth in mid May, rising in the Southeast as the sun sets and hanging in the sky all through the night. Our moon can aid in finding these planets as it passes them by. Late in the evening of April 8th, the crescent moon will appear near the planet Saturn in the Southeast. On April 21st, the moon will appear near the brilliant planet Venus in the western dusk. The moon is near the bright planet Jupiter on April 26th in the southwest.

On May 5th, the moon (just past full) will appear above the planet Saturn in the eastern evening sky. On May 19th, the crescent moon will appear near the planet Mercury low in the western dusk. On May 21st, the crescent moon will appear near the planet Venus in the western dusk. On May 23rd, the moon passes by Jupiter in the western dusk. On June 1st, the nearly full moon will appear just North of the planet Saturn. On June 15th, the crescent moon will appear close to the planet Mercury in the eastern dawn. On June 20th, the crescent moon appears near the brilliant planet Venus in the western dusk. On the next evening, the moon will be closest to the bright planet Jupiter. On June 28th, the moon will be closest to the planet Saturn.

On spring evenings, The Big Dipper can be seen upside down, high in the North. The two leftmost stars of the Big Dipper point downward to the North Star. While the North Star is rather ordinary in appearance, it holds its position all through the night, every night of the year. For Earth's North Pole very nearly points to the North Star. So as the Earth spins, it causes our sun to appear to roll across the sky during the day while the stars, the moon and planets seem to move around the North Star at night.

The best and brightest evening star on view on April evenings is the star Sirius (sounds like serious), which is also the closest night star visible through the year. To be sure of recognizing Sirius, look in the southwest in the early evenings for Orion's belt of 3 stars in a row. This line of stars points left to Sirius. On May or June evenings, the brightest evening star is Arcturus, a bright orange star that lies along the curve of the Big Dipper's handle. In the west is the bright yellow star Capella, a star that shines in the evenings for three seasons (fall, winter & spring). As Capella descends, a bright star named Vega climbs into the Northeast.

During the 2015 spring months, the evening moon is full a few days into the month. A week later, the moon will appear half full in the southern dawn. About a week before the end of the month, the evening moon appears about half full at dusk. This is the best moon phase to spot lunar surface features with binoculars.

The moon is our Earth's companion as we travel each year about the sun. The moon's visible shapes (phases) are due to the moon being lit by the sun as it orbits the Earth. The moon can be seen growing in lighted width in the evening sky for about a dozen days. The moon then appears full for an evening or two and then begins to shrink, spending just as much time shrinking in the morning sky as it did growing in the evening sky. Even the nearer planets are so far away compared to their distances that they appear as steady points in the sky. In order of brightness as seen from Earth, Venus is by far the brightest planet, with Jupiter in 2nd place.

For additional information, contact:

Dr. Robert Doyle, Planetarium Director
Frostburg State University
Department of Physics and Engineering
101 Braddock Road
Frostburg, MD 21532-1099
(301) 687-4270






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